Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith
Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt, 2008
Non-fiction, Biography
Teen friendly version of Charles Darwin's life -- sounds great to me. I don't know too much about Darwin's life beyond The Origin of Species, so I thought Charles and Emma would be a perfect way to be introduced to his life without having to read some super boring or overly technical account of his life. Although I thought the book was excellent and very interesting, I'm not sure if the target teen audience would agree.

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

Deborah Heiligman's new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.

Let me start by saying that I did really like this book; it was extremely interesting to learn about Darwin's personal life and conflicts. Heiligman is an excellent writer and has created a thought-provoking take on Darwin's life. The only reason I am not jumping up and down with enthusiasm over this book is because I'm not sure that the younger end of the teen spectrum would be all that interested in Charles' relationship with Emma and his life with his children. The intended audience is 13 and up, which I'm not sure if I really agree with. I think older teens will find the story interesting and get a lot out of it as far as relationships, religion, and science go. But the younger teens (13-15) might have difficulty with the book. Maybe I'm simply not giving teens enough credit, as far as this one goes.

Setting my age group issues aside, this book is really well-thought out and so well-written. I never would have thought to use Charles' relationship (and issues) with Emma as a backdrop to discuss the play between science and religion. This concept works very well; the story of Charles' life and influential works all fit into an easy to follow and entertaining book. By pulling humorous bits from Charles' life (like his marry/not marry list), Heiligman prevents the book from being too stuffy and makes Charles a more normal person, rather than a great scientific figure. This is what really makes the book good and what will make it interesting to the older teens.

I haven't read much non-fiction recently and this one served as an excellent re-introduction to the genre. Although I do think it will be difficult to find others so well written and thought-provoking. 

Add to your to-read pile

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